Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Malibu Ranch landscape

A few months back I had a special opportunity to attend a one-day introductory program at the Ranch at Live Oak Malibu. And at the risk of sounding trite, I’ll say it was a transformative experience. The kind of day that weighs heavily in your heart and constant in your psyche for for days, weeks and now months.

My trip to Malibu was bookended by visits with dear friends, former PMD contributors Dayna McLeod and Torrie Sessions and the entire adventure was made possible by a perfectly-timed business trip on my husband’s part. This meant that while I would be immersed in a world free of instagram and twitter and full of health and wellness my little Emerson could eat her weight in churros and generally live it up with Dumbo and friends with her dad.

Malibu Ranch dining table

Normally, a visit to the Ranch is a week-long commitment to unplugging (there’s no cell service), detoxing (no alcohol or caffeine) and extensive exercising (guests move their bodies for 10-12 hours each day). Our day was a mini version of the program which is meant to kick start your metabolism and promote mental clarity. All of this takes place in the mountains of Malibu. The natural terrain sets the tone for a deeply meditative experience.

A 15 minute drive high above Highway 1 had me feeling so far removed from every day life that I may as well have been transported to another country. The lack of cell service helped to make a total surrender to the Ranch that much easier. I had no idea how much I needed this day. The experiences I had there, physical, social, educational and personal have stayed with me all summer long. I can only imagine the lasting impact that six consecutive days would have on the body and soul.

Malibu Ranch fiddle leaf fig

Settle in with a cup of tea, friends. Here’s how the day went down:

We started the morning with some chit chat, herbal tea and a welcome from Marc, director of operations and our fearless leader for the day. I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect and had never met any of the other invitees in the room. Turns out we were all a little nervous, vulnerable, but open to what awaited. We were jumping in blindly, which I’m learning is kind of a great way to start any grand adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for proper preparation like wearing sunscreen and packing water, but there’s something to be said for letting go of some control and just being open to the unfolding path.

So with that spirit we took off for roughly a two hour hike. I don’t know for sure, because watches are strongly discouraged at the Ranch. Marc made it easy for us to let go. He kept the conversation going, peppering our small and big talk with mini lectures on health and fitness facts, background on the land and how it is maintained and reminders for us to check in with our bodies, notice how we are feeling and drink water. Marc reminded us that the human body is built to be in motion for 8-12 hours each day. Pretty much the opposite of how many of us live our lives. This makes a great argument for daily exercise – not just scheduled workouts, but walking whenever possible, taking the stairs and skipping the elevator and maybe even investing in a standing desk. Physically, it was a challenge for most of us. We were dusty, hot and hungry by the time we headed back to the main house for…lunch!

Malibu Ranch Agave

Civilized is a word that kept coming up for me throughout the day. No question, the Ranch is aesthetically beautiful. The landscaping is impecible and blends seamlessly into the natural habitat (a good sign of thoughtful gardening), everything has been planted, built and designed with intention by the owners, Sue and Alex. The Ranch is a real labor of love and it shows. From the cloth napkins, to the glass jars of loose herbal tea to the heart shaped agave potted just outside the main gathering room each and every detail appears peaceful and at home.

All of this helped me to feel equally at peace and at home. And sure it’s easy to feel especially civilized when meals are being prepared and served by someone else and your every move is being expertly guided by a gentle hand and your twitter feed, not to mention the demands of your everyday life, are inaccessible. But all of this had me thinking of ways I can make small adjustments to my “real” life to make it just a tad more civilized.

Back to the food. Lunch was a massaged kale salad. The best kale salad I have ever tasted. I tried hard to eat slowly, to remember the sage words of Jack Kornfield about treating meals as a meditation. But it was hard. All of us were ravenous and when we looked up from our empty plates, it took all of our collective restraint not to dog fight over Marc’s leftovers. He assured us that he is so in tune with his body and needs and was quite confident that he simply did not need to finish his entire meal. He was listening to his body. Clearly, this level of enlightenment takes time, work and awareness. How often are we all guilty of mowing through a meal without taking the time to allow our stomachs to catch up with our brains? Also, how often do we eat in front of a screen or with a magazine or newspaper open? Marc’s calm and quiet approach to everything had me thinking about the effect that scarcity has on my every day life. It’s time to slow down a bit – at least during meal time.

Malibu Ranch food demo

Marc then shared a demonstration on quantity versus quality food. He showed us spinach, kale, olive oil and nuts in various amounts and compared their nutritional value. Obviously kale and spinach are both healthy choices but it takes a lot less kale to fill your belly with enough benefits than roughly four times as much spinach. Good food for thought, so to speak.

Malibu Ranch Pool

Next up was a walking tour of the facility as we digested our lunch. My only dissapointment of the day was not being allowed to visit their expansive organic garden, where the majority of their vegan, gluten-free ingredients come from. Seriously, broke my gardener’s heart. I’ve pretty much made it my goal to get into that garden someday. We strolled through luxurious cabins (where each guest is woken up by the sounds of wind chimes), massage village (because during a weeklong stay you get daily massages, duh), the glistening pool situation (where I, again mustered all my self control and avoiding jumping in fully clothed) and the rest of the meditative grounds.

Now it was time for our work out. Turns out the morning hike was a warm up for an afternoon of pain fun. Yoga, self massage and TRX, oh my. It was a proper ass kicking. But not in the boot camp, screaming instructor, loud music kind of manner we’ve all grown accoustomed to. These group classes were lead gracefully by a team of instructors who made each of us feel safe, encouraged and generally attended to through every stretch, lift, pull and push.

TRX and self massage (with a large foam bolster) were both new concepts to me and I have to say, I’m sold. All the exercise at the Ranch is low impact, but high intensity. Perfect for me, as I’ve grown to accept the aches and pains that come with a lifetime running and aerobics. I’m not going to lie, by this point in the afternoon I was already sore. Large and small muscles were being used in new and interesting ways and my entire body was feeling the impact of a long and challenging day. That final savasana never felt so good. Had it not been dinner time I would have happily camped out on that gym floor.

Malibu Ranch patio

Finally, we were treated to an impeccably-made dish of zucchini noodles, various veggies and shaved hazelnuts (to simulate parmesan cheese). It was delicious. I was not alone in longing for a second helping (or a glass of wine), but more than anything I was filled with gratitude for the experience. There is some serious magic happening in those hills above Malibu and I can only hope for a return visit someday.

Now for a few of my top take aways from the day. Each of these felt like pebbles in the moment and nearly three months later I’m just starting to feel the ripple effect. But I believe that’s how most important and lasting changes happen – through small, subtle shifts in the body, brain and heart. Here goes:

Less technology: As much as I love my smart phone, I’m over being a slave to its siren call. Same goes for blogs and social media. This is a tough one to navigate, since I’ve made beautiful friendships through my blog and only found out about the Ranch through Twitter. So, I’m careful not to bite the hand that has fed me in so many ways these past few years. But I’m starting to re-evaluate when, where and how frequently I participate in the online world.

More movement: I don’t just need more workouts I need more movement. Everyday. Walks after dinner. Stairs rather than elevators. And social activities built around healthy activities rather then sitting around drinking wine (although, that is occasionally a delightful end to said activity).

Less refined sugar/less processed food: This one is a big one for me. But my time at the Ranch left me taking a much closer look at food labels and making a stronger commitment to eating less food with labels – meaning whole, real food. As a (nearly) lifelong vegetarian and an admitted fruit and veggie lover I have some pretty strong clean eating tendencies, but there’s room for improvement. It’s especially interesting to see how my nutritional needs are changing as I age – and that’s a whole other post.

Thoughtful aesthetics: This one has been brewing for a while now, as I’ve started to look at my home and my garden with fresh eyes. I’ve struggled with the stuff of life for all of my life. The ongoing work of organizing and minimizing paperwork, collectables, clothing, art supplies, books, memories and all the odds and ends throws me into a regular fit of anxiety and often triggers unhealthy choices. Stress (for me) usually leads to less exercise, access sleeping, poor eating choices and more wine. Not exactly a recipe for optimum health. So, I’m working on the “stuff” of life a little bit every day. I have an ever-present donation bag that gets filled up every month and I’m being much more thoughtful with any and all purchases that come into my home.

On my best days, all of this comes together and I feel great, healthy, inspired and focused. On my worst days, I’m accepting of where I am and I have more faith that tomorrow is another chance for greatness. My experience at the Ranch didn’t make all of this happen, but the things I learned and the people I met helped to sharpen my focus on what is and is not working in my life. I didn’t realize it then, but now it’s clear that’s exactly where I needed to be. It came at a perfect time. I’m so grateful for those eight magical hours in the hills above Malibu.





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  • Melissa

    estelle ~ thank you for sharing your experience with us. there is something to be said for a place filled with such peace and soul-searching magic. the ranch is on my bucket list!

  • Torrie @ a place to share…

    i loved hearing about your ranch experience… IN PERSON:))).

  • Mel

    Love this post and all of the bits you took away that day and can keep reflecting on……